Little Libraries, Big Ideas
By Amanda K. Jaros
The Little Free Library movement brings book sharing back to basics… and your neighborhood, helping create community and grow generosity, while sharing books and hope for a better world.
There’s always something new at my neighborhood library. From Ralph S. Mouse, to a yoga guide, to a John Irving novel, I am always sure to find something I’ll enjoy reading. But these aren’t books that need to be checked out or returned, and you don’t have to be quiet in this library. That’s because my neighborhood library is a Little Free Library, which stands under the trees on the edge of my property, at the junction of the street and a walking trail.
The Little Free Library movement came to my attention last April. I saw one picture of a compact and colorful box offering free books, and I was hooked. I knew I had to make one. When I started to create my own Little Free Library, I had no idea that I was joining a global movement that spanned fifty-two countries. As my project progressed, I came to realize that while this organization and the people participating in it were indeed making cute boxes to give away free books, they were really doing so much more.
Beginning with Creativity
The first Little Free Library was born out of love. Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin wanted to honor his mother, a former school teacher. He built a replica of a schoolhouse, filled it with books, and placed it in his front yard in 2009. The library was a hit! Bol enlisted the help of friend Rick Brooks and the two went to Madison, Wisconsin to install a few more neighborhood libraries. The people of Madison loved them and, with the enthusiastic help of a network of friends, a movement began.
Among other models, the original Little Free Library idea followed the inspiration of gift-sharing networks, “take a book, leave a book” shelves in coffee shops and stores, and Andrew Carnegie’s support and creation of 2,509 public libraries in the early 1900s. With these ideas in mind, Bol’s and Brook’s mission quickly became clear. They wanted to promote literacy and a love of reading, and build a sense of community by sharing skills, creativity, and wisdom within neighborhoods. Another goal became clear as well: to match the number of libraries Carnegie had built worldwide.
As I researched the numerous photos online, I knew I wanted my library to be distinctive, but what form that would take was uncertain. Little Free Libraries have been made to look like everything from churches to phone booths to birdhouses to school buses. The variety of styles was overwhelming.
The Little Free Library organization sells pre- made libraries on its website. This was something that Bol started doing outright. People were so enamored with the libraries, that they began paying Bol to build them. When demand surpassed what he could build on his own, he collaborated with fellow Wisconsinite Henry Miller, an Amish carpenter. In Miller, Bol had found someone who could build more libraries, faster. The team came up with new styles, tested them for waterproofness, and began selling them to a very interested public.
A Little Free Library must be safely mounted on a post and sealed to keep out water and wind. Today there are more than a dozen varieties of pre-built libraries available on the LFL website, not to mention the custom orders. They range in style from a basic wooden box with a roof to a Scandinavian cottage, with prices ranging from $160 to $600. Many of the libraries are made from reclaimed barn wood, or use recycled materials in construction.
I didn’t have the money to buy a premade library, and with a carpenter for a husband, I knew we could make a custom design easily and affordably, and oozing personality to boot. The first step was to stop by the local salvage warehouse. We walked the dusty rooms searching for a box that spoke to us. After a lengthy hunt past windows, sinks, and scrap wood, we came upon an old kitchen cabinet. It was tall and skinny, with three shelves inside, and no door handle. It was also made of particleboard, not solid wood, but we figured that with a decent roof it would be safe from storms. With the hearty approval of our seven-year-old son, we saved the twelve dollar box from a life of mediocrity.
The shape of the cabinet guided the construction into a tall “brick” bookstore. My husband cut three windows out of the door. We bought a small custom cut sheet of glass for four dollars, and secured it on. He built an angled roof, and attached a piece of scrap metal roofing. When the shell was ready, it was time to bring the bookstore to life.
I painted it with leftover textured paint from an old bedroom redo and some colored acrylics. They mixed into just the right shade of brick red. But the bookstore wasn’t complete without some flowerboxes hanging on the windows, decoupaged shelves with an old calendar of picture book art, and a spoon handle.
The next step was deciding on a location. It needed to be somewhere near to the house, yet visible to passersby. At the back end of our property is the junction of our one-lane street, a town-maintained walking trail, and a fire access road to another neighborhood that is frequented by bikers. This meeting point was the perfect spot.
We cemented a post into the ground and fixed the bookstore to the post. The whole thing took about two weekend days, and the result was my delightful little bookstore in the woods.
At first, my son and I ran out to check the books several times a day. We were excited to see if anyone had taken or left a book. I wasn’t sure how to get the word out about my library, but I knew it would take a while to catch on. We kept adding more books and watched as one by one the books disappeared. I posted pictures on my personal blog and described how our library was born.
The only way to become an “official” Library is to pay a fee to the organization. With upwards of four hundred libraries by 2011, Brooks and Bol knew that their idea was taking off. So many people wanted to participate that the founders created a non-profit organization in 2012 and registered and trademarked the Little Free Library name. For anyone to legally call their book trading space a Little Free Library, and get a dot on the worldwide map, they must register with the organization. The fee was nominal – thirty-five dollars – but I was trying to do this project as inexpensively as I could, and I didn’t feel I could spend the money right then.
If Bol, Brooks, Miller, and the story of the LFL organization had shown me anything thus far, it was that Little Free Libraries are about collaboration. This was proved to me four months after we installed our library, when I got a message on my blog from a woman named Jill Swenson. Jill was a book developer in town, had stumbled across my library post, and offered me a Little Free Library deal. She had an official LFL number, but no library to put it on. She had read my blog and knew I had a library but no registration number. She wanted to be co-stewards, with her registration and my little bookstore.
Jill’s offer was utterly generous and she was enthusiastic to share her love of books with a neighborhood – even if it wasn’t hers! We talked and shared our stories, and she spread the word loud and far about Little Free Libraries in general and our LFL bookstore #4094 in particular.
I checked the LFL map and saw that I wasn’t the only one in my small town who had taken a liking to Little Free Libraries. There were three others on the map, with dots showing their locations and steward names. Jill’s enthusiasm was contagious and my own excitement was renewed, so I reached out to the other stewards in my town. I found out why they loved their libraries and how pleasurable the sharing of books had been.
One of the stewards kept a small notebook in her library. Every day or two, she received a message from one of her neighbors saying what book they enjoyed, thanking her for creating the library, or just saying hi. I followed her lead and added a notebook to my library too. Within a week, I had notes from neighbors I didn’t know saying what a wonderful addition to our community the library in the woods was.
There were rumors of more libraries around town, libraries I had not seen on the map. Jill put me in touch with one woman, Sharon Yntema, who had turned an old, abandoned real estate brochure box into a free library. Sharon and I have numerous mutual friends but had never met. She shared her story about walking past the plastic yellow box every day for months and watching it fill up with garbage. She wanted to turn it into something nice for the neighborhood, so she cleaned it out and put in some books. People loved it. She restocked it often and enjoyed watching her books filter out into the community. Sharon wants to officially register her library, but she has not received a response from the owner of the box, nor from the city on whose sidewalk it stands. She will need approval from both to legally use the box, but for now, she just keeps putting books out there and relishing the joy of sharing.
When you register your LFL with the organization, you receive a small wooden sign engraved with the LFL logo and your number. They also send a goody bag of bumper stickers and pamphlets on how to manage your library, how to handle any possible vandalism (a rare occurrence with LFLs), and a sample invitation to a Library Grand Opening party. What a great idea! Now I knew how I would get the word out about our LFL.
With the help of a few friends and Jill’s homemade apple pie, we had a successful gathering one sunny fall afternoon at LFL #4094. Some neighbors brought a book, some took a book, but mostly we sat around, ate pie and cookies, and talked. And this, I think, is one of the main joys of being a steward of a Little Free Library. Neighbors spent that afternoon with people they might not have talked to otherwise, connecting and getting to know each other a little bit more.
These connections are, indeed, an important part of the life of a Little Free Library. But only recently did I discover what it was that originally hooked me, that feeling I got from the first glimpse of an amusing box containing free books. It took me seven months and one more unexpected connection to understand.
After Jill and I made our LFL official, she encouraged me to write a short article for the local paper. I did so, and a few weeks later got an email from a young Ph.D. student at Cornell University, Leah Scolere. Leah was studying temporary architecture and communication, had seen the article, and wanted to talk more about my LFL. When Leah came to talk, she brought some thoughtful questions. She was very eager to learn about Little Free Libraries but, more particularly, she wanted to know how I felt about mine and what my experience had been. I love books, I love reading, but the more she asked, the more I really considered: what was it that made me so happy about being a LFL steward?
As I thought about it, I thought of how deeply troubled I am by our world full of greed and negative political news and environmental degradation. The ability to give something away so utterly freely, without strings attached, just because, is the antidote to those worries. Little Free Libraries welcome anyone to give and to take. They allow everyone a chance to pick up a book and read. They pull people in to work together and encourage neighbors to talk. They add artistic flair to a neighborhood. A Little Free Library is the complete opposite of the negativity that circles the world. For me, sharing books with anyone who wanders by and wants one is a small thing, but it is the small things we offer each other that matter.
With 5,200 “official” libraries in the world and an estimated 8,000 more unofficial ones, Brook’s and Bol’s goal of creating as many libraries as Andrew Carnegie did has been well surpassed. And it’s not just individuals who are building Little Free Libraries. Public libraries, schools, and small shops and stores are installing libraries in front of their buildings. Groups from Girls Scouts to Rotary clubs are sponsoring libraries or organizing community builds. And then there are the large organizations who are participating, including Reach a Child, which offers support to children who are in crisis or suffering from traumatic situations; Friends Through the Years, which works to educate people about the social isolation of elders; and Good Global Neighbors, which teams up schools in America with schools in India and Africa to promote all children going to school.
I do always find something great to read at my neighborhood library, and I also love to share a copy of Huckleberry Finn or books of knitting patterns. But what I’ve found since that first image of a Little Free Library captivated me has been more delightfully profound than I could have imagined. The pure joy of making someone’s day a little bit brighter with a book puts a tiny dent in the hardness of the world. Just as Todd Bol’s little schoolhouse with free books was born out of love, my little bookstore in the woods was born out of hope.
How to Create Your Own Neighborhood Little Free Library
Read the information on the Little Free Library website.
Contact a local author, a homeschooling group, or your public library to see if they want to collaborate or sponsor your library.
Look through the gallery of libraries online and decide whether to buy a pre-made library or design your own.
If you make your own library, consult the plans provided on the LFL website. Gather materials, such as wood, roofing, tools, paint, etc.
Build your library, making sure it is waterproof and windproof!
Decide on a location where you can check on the library regularly, and passerby can access it easily.
Install your library and fill it with books and magazines from your own bookcases, thrift shops, or book sales.
Register your Little Free Library to get on the map and get your official LFL number.
Spread the word to your neighbors. Write notes and emails and ask people to pass on the news to their friends.
Celebrate the sharing of books and watch the community connections grow.
Amanda K. Jaros is a freelance writer and blogger focusing on Nature, science, and parenting stories. When not writing, she plays outside as much as she can with her partner Rob, stepdaughter Talya, and son Cedar in Ithaca, NY. Find her online as Blog Editor at Literary Mama, or at her personal blog Tamarack Writes, which you’ll find at http://tamarackwrites.blogspot.com.